Myanmar’s ruling military junta has been curtailing civil liberties more than a year after it seized power in a dramatic coup and imprisoned over a hundred officials, including the country’s former leader and longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
But in its campaign to suppress dissent, no target is too small.
The junta has threatened the country’s vast number of social media users with incarceration for simply clicking “like” on the content of its political opponents.
In televised remarks on Tuesday, junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said support for the National Unity Government and affiliated groups on social media could result in a three- to 10-year prison sentence, Reuters reported.
The National Unity Government, a shadow government formed by an alliance of anti-junta groups labeled by the junta as “terrorists,” have been raising funds to resist the military’s rule. Its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force, forms part of the resistance movement against the regime, clashing with junta forces in different parts of the country.
“At this point, what is clear from this latest announcement is that the [junta] is intent on suppressing support for the [National Unity Government],” Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VICE World News.
However, she added, there will be “logistics and capacity issues to consider” if the junta follows through on its threat against social media users who “like” or share its opposition’s content.
Social media has proved to be a major pillar in nationwide resistance efforts against the junta, with activists often relying on social media to organize campaigns and document violence committed by the military. Meanwhile, the National Unity Government announces policies and reports on news events daily to their 1.3 million followers on Facebook and 164,500 on Twitter.
The military regime is long known for its heavy-handed crackdown on online information, having plunged the country into an internet shutdown in April 2021, just two months after the coup. In an attempt to establish what human rights experts have termed a “digital dictatorship,” a leaked letter in January revealed that the junta was on its way to passing a draft cybersecurity law that would allow authorities unlimited access to user data and the ability to ban internet content. According to the bill, anyone caught accessing banned sites through virtual private networks (VPNs) would be jailed for up to three years.
“Internet restrictions are being used by the junta as a cloak to hide its ongoing atrocities,” said UN human rights experts in a press release published in June. “The junta is using internet shutdowns and invasive surveillance to undermine widespread public opposition and prop up its attacks on the people of Myanmar.”
The junta’s seizure of power has been accompanied by heightened state violence across the country, with at least 1,900 killings by the military reported since the February 2021 coup. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, one million people have been internally displaced and some 14 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Despite international condemnation and ostracization by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Myanmar’s junta has maintained its ironfisted approach to dissent. It has sentenced more than 100 people to death since the coup, and announced in July that it had hanged four prominent political prisoners—the first known executions since the late 1980s.
This fierce crackdown on political opponents shows no signs of stopping even as the junta gears up for what it promised to be “free and fair multiparty democratic elections,” expected to take place by August.
“The regime has emphasized the importance of stability in preparing for its stated aim to convene elections in 2023,” said Moe Thuzar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The main objective of the military junta is to ‘crush the opposition’ and enforce law and order and ‘stability’ according to how the military interprets this necessity.”